Stephen Glass Wants A Second Chance

In 1998, while working for Forbes Digital, Adam Penenberg exposed the lies of New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass. The expose was a watershed moment for online journalism and later became the basis of a movie starring Hayden Christensen. Now for the first time, Penenberg tells the story behind the story.

When I first heard that Stephen Glass intended to join the legal profession, I thought, Why not? Since when does lying disqualify someone from being a lawyer?

Glass’s adopted profession has spawned scads of jokes over the years. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A busload of lawyers on its way to a legal convention drives off a cliff, killing everyone on board. The real tragedy? There were three empty seats. Or this one: What’s the difference between a dead skunk on the road and a dead lawyer? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

The facts are not so funny. In 1993 the American Bar Association commissioned a survey to elicit the public’s perception of its members. It found that most Americans believed that lawyers didn’t care for their clients, had little compassion and sorely lacked ethics. The association took immediate corrective action by vowing not to commission any more surveys on ethics.

Gallup polls that rank professions on the basis of trust consistently place attorneys near the bottom, below auto mechanics, nursing home operators, and (cough, cough) journalists, and just a smidge above advertising executives, members of Congress, car salesmen and lobbyists. Of those bottom-rung professions, more than half of senators listed law as their occupation before taking office, and virtually all lobbyists have had legal training. If I asked you to name a famous attorney with an immaculate reputation, you’d probably have to go way back to Clarence Darrow or Perry Mason, and he wasn’t even real). Eventually you might end up answering Gloria Allred, Johnnie Cochran, John Edwards or those faceless minions from the Recording Industry Association of America known for putting their stamp on music take-down notices.

The ethical bar for lawyers is so low it’s hard to imagine anyone but a convicted felon barred from the legal profession before he could even argue his first case. The last time it happened in California it involved a man named Eben Gossage, who served three years for killing his sister then returned to prison for possession of heroin. Now, a dozen years later, the dubious honor goes to former wunderkind journalist Stephen Glass. If you recall, Glass was The New Republic associate editor who in the late 1990s fabricated in whole or part some two-dozen articles. These were mostly published in The New Republic but also in Harpers, Rolling Stone, and the now defunct George magazine. At the time, it was the journalism scandal to end all journalism scandals. Now Glass is in the thick of his final appeal to the California Supreme Court, and we’ll finally get an answer to the question: Is renowned serial liar, Stephen Randall Glass, fit to practice law?

Featuring art by Molly Crabapple

Adapted from NSFWCORP Print, issue #2, published April 29, 2013.

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Stephen Glass Wants A Second Chance

In 1998, while working for Forbes Digital, Adam Penenberg exposed the lies of New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass. The expose was a watershed moment for online journalism and later became the basis of a movie starring Hayden Christensen. Now for the first time, Penenberg tells the story behind the story.

A report by Adam Penenberg

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